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Graham, Pitt rout Bulls

Posted Sep 30, 2011 by Adam Adkins

Updated Sep 30, 2011 at 03:03 AM

PITTSBURGH The University of South Florida knew entering Thursday night’s showdown at Pittsburgh that Ray Graham posed a tremendous challenge, and the Panthers running back proved too much to handle.

Graham rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries to lead Pittsburgh to a 44-17 rout of the 16th-ranked Bulls in front of an announced crowd of 40,025 at Heinz Field as well as an ESPN national television audience, which undoubtedly has grown accustomed to watching USF struggle in Thursday night appearances.

The Bulls dropped to 0-7 all-time in Thursday primetime matchups on ESPN with a loss in their 2011 Big East Conference opener.

“He’s one of the best I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Bulls defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said of Graham, who entered averaging a Big East-best 127 rushing yards per game.

But it wasn’t just Graham who had his way against the USF defense. Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri also had a big game, completing 22 of 33 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown while rushing for another score.

The Panthers racked up 523 total yards and scored on six of seven possessions during one stretch, with the only non-scoring drive coming when they had the ball for just 26 seconds right before halftime. One area that helped that efficiency was the success rate on third down. Pittsburgh converted 9 of 15 third downs on the night, much to the chagrin of Snyder and the rest of the USF defense.

“We couldn’t get off the field on third down,” Snyder said. “We just could not get off the field on third down.”

The USF offense, meanwhile, simply wasn’t able to finish drives. The Bulls totaled 425 yards but managed just three first-half scores and turned the ball over twice in the second half.

“We had a good night, we were able to move it, but we certainly weren’t very productive with it,” USF coach Skip Holtz said. “They did a very nice job of taking away our big plays, which is something we really thrived on here in the first four weeks. They made us turn and work the ball underneath and earn it, and we weren’t able to turn and get that done.”

USF produced the game’s first score, converting an early Pitt turnover into a touchdown with a 12-yard B.J. Daniels scoring run. However, the Bulls found themselves behind for the first time this season late in the first quarter when Pittsburgh’s Kevin Harper connected on a 47-yard field goal to put the Panthers ahead 10-7.

USF also went into halftime trailing for the first time this season at 20-17, but had some positive momentum going into the break after putting together a quick scoring drive in the final two minutes of the first half, a 34-yard Maikon Bonani field goal that brought the team with three.

At halftime, though, Holtz relayed just how important it was for his team to get off to a great start when it went back out.

“I did tell the offensive staff that the opening drive of the third quarter was going to be the difference in this football game,” the coach said. “I thought it was going to tell a lot on how the second half was going to go.”

USF’s offense failed to pick up a first down on the drive, totaling just six yards on three plays before punting the ball away.

“It was disappointing to come out with that drive,” said Daniels, who finished 18 of 36 passing for 223 yards and added another 43 yards on the ground. “We expected to come out and score, because up until that point we had been moving the ball pretty well. That’s the most disappointing thing, not to come out on that first drive and score.”

The Bulls then watched Pittsburgh put together back-to-back touchdown drives in its first two series of the second half. Sunseri capped a nine-play, 69-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Hubie Graham, and running back Zach Brown put the finishing touches on a nine-play, 69-yard drive with a 2-yard scoring run, which gave the Panthers a commanding 34-17 lead.

“They drove it. They ran it down our throat,” senior safety Jerrell Young said. “We couldn’t get off the field on third down. It’s tough when you know you got ‘em, you got ‘em, and they get a third down and keep the chains moving. It wasn’t like it was a big play. They were driving it down the field.”

Graham put the finishing touches on a stellar night on Pittsburgh’s final touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. He had consecutive runs covering 20 and 31 yards and, after getting a one-play break from carrying the ball, punched it into the end zone on the next play with an 8-yard scoring run that made it a 41-17 game with 11:29 to play.

“They do a nice job by getting their running backs in space, and once he got in space he’d make you miss,” Holtz said of Graham. “He’s quick. He’s quicker than he is fast, and he’s very elusive.

“If he can turn and get on the perimeter, he’s going to hurt you, and that’s one of things we kept saying. What upset me today was we did not keep the edge of our defense very well, and if he can get outside circle of the defense and get an open space, he is very dangerous. That’s what he was able to do today. He was impressive. He was very impressive.”

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